A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: This week’s blog is by guest author Louis Finkelman (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. It originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
I found a cookbook that describes a classical French combination, mirepoix, as a finely-diced mixture of onions, carrots and celery, simmered or sautéed. The writer explains what each ingredient adds to the mixture. According to this sophisticated expert, the celery adds texture, but does not add much in the way of flavor, since celery basically has very little flavor.
Go to the supermarket and you can find celery that proves his point. In fact, you cannot find any other kind of celery in the supermarket. The thick, heavy stalks of celery, with their creamy color, just barely green, gently whisper the secret information about their flavor, “we taste of celery.” The green leaves have a strong, bitter flavor, but who uses the leaves of celery?
Visiting my son and his family in Israel, some years ago, I made the trip to his local Shufrasol supermarket. The celery there did not look like American celery. It had little, thin stalks, all a deep dark bright green. When we got home and used the celery in recipes, it did not taste like American supermarket celery either: rather than whispering, it shouted. It yelled, “I AM CELERY! HEAR ME ROAR!” In a soup, in a stew, in a casserole, a few snips of celery sufficed to make a bold statement.
My growing affinity for celery
I started growing celery at home, in my little backyard vegetable garden. My garden celery comes up much more like its assertive Israeli relations than the kind in American supermarkets. It comes up small, but powerful. It has an attitude.
This year, during my annual trip to the farm supply store to pick up my vegetables, I got a quick lesson in why we have such different versions of celery. The manager of the store directed me to find “ordinary celery.” I commented that “it does not seem ordinary to me. It does not taste like supermarket celery.”
American commercial growers (according to the manager of the farm supply store) irrigate their celery heavily to get those big, bland stalks. I read somewhere that growers even put shades on parts of the celery plant so that it does not develop too much flavor.
I thought about that quest for celery without too much flavor. That goes along with preferring white bread to rye or whole wheat. It goes along with cutting off the crust of sandwiches. It resonates with preferring white meat to dark. Turkeys raised for meat usually have been bred for so much white meat that they move about awkwardly. Their huge breasts so limit their motion that they need artificial insemination. All this happens in the search for less intense flavor. It all goes together. It rhymes.
Appearance over substance
In a way, that quest for less intensive flavor matches the quest for perfect appearance. No doubt, the big, creamy, thick celery has a certain visual appeal that the small, thin, dark green stuff cannot match. The huge red strawberries in the market all look beautiful; sometimes they taste like strawberries, too. The only apples available in the supermarket look like wax models of apples: big, flawless, shiny. They come in bright red or bright green. Though growers have identified hundreds or thousands of different varieties of apple, our selection at the market usually gets restricted to the three or four prettiest. I will not even mention tomatoes. Some of us do not share the preference for bland and pretty. Those who seek intense, complex flavors have to look for produce at ethnic shops, or farmers’ markets or just grow our own.
When it comes to people, too — do I have to spell this out? — we might make an effort to overcome our resistance and put up with people who have too much flavor and too imperfect an appearance. We might find our best companions, our wisest guides and our most promising students. They might make our lives more interesting.
Editor’s note: A mirepoix is a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrot and one part celery, roughly chopped and cooked slowly in a bit of oil until the onion is translucent. This recipe, from a contributor named Gordon on the allrecipes.com website, uses a mirepoix with braised chicken breasts. You can cook up mirepoix ahead of time and use it to add to soups or stews. The photo with the recipe is by naples34102, another Allrecipes contributor.
Braised Chicken Breasts with Mirepoix Ragout
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 Tbs. olive oil
- 2 cups diced onion
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1 cup diced carrots
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 (32 fluid oz.) containers chicken broth
- Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper, then dredge in flour until completely coated. Heat 2 Tbs. oil in a Dutch oven and fry breasts until lightly browned, about 5 minutes on each side. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
- Add remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan and saute the onions for 2 minutes. Stir in the celery and carrots and cook for about one more minute. Season with garlic, bay leaves, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another minute.
- Deglaze the pot with white wine, stirring until nothing is stuck to the pan, then pour in the chicken broth. Simmer for 90 minutes.
- Return the chicken breasts to the pan and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. The mixture should reduce considerably by this time so check frequently to see that the chicken is covered. Spoon-baste if necessary. The ragout should have a stew like consistency when finished.
Debra Darvick says
Sounds delicious and now I know what mirapoix means! Next time I go to the farmers market
I’ll have to ask about celery…..Thanks for a great column!